I started a blog for a client as a lead generation platform, and it was rising in the search engine results. Then one morning, I checked the rankings, and my heart stopped. Overnight, all my keywords dropped 50-60 positions. I had no clue why this happened. Trying not to panic, I sat back and went through the process below.
Is the website still Indexed?
Even though the site didn’t lose all its rankings, I wanted to make sure the site was still indexed by Google. To do this, I went to Google search, typed in Site: www.clientblog.com. Thankfully, all the website pages showed up in the search results. This meant the site wasn’t kicked off of Google but, something did go wrong to trigger a penalty.
What type of Penalty?
I checked to see if the site received a manual penalty (man-made) or if it was a filter in Google’s algorithm. The manual ones are dreadful (from past experiences) as you will have to go through the Google reconsideration process. Google receives 20,000 reconsideration requests a month. It can be a long wait until someone looks at your application. For some websites, a manual penalty is a death sentence; time to start over. The major search engines Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex (Russia), and Baidu (China) all have algorithms that detect unnatural, spammy links that trace back to a website. When algorithms detect unnatural links, a search engine will either automatically penalize a website or report the website to a human for a manual penalty to be administered by the search engine.
To find out my fate, I went into my Google Search Console and clicked on the Manual Actions button. If there were a manual penalty, I would find a friendly, yet vague message from Google waiting for me (example below). The message would state that the website violated one of their many Webmaster guidelines. Then, they would ask me to make massive changes which typically pinpoints spam content. Then to fill out a reconsideration form to get the site back up to good standing. Luckily, no messages were awaiting my arrival in the search console.
At this point, I realized that this was the standard, garden variety filter penalty. These types of penalties are fixable, but you have to figure out if it’s a Panda penalty or its cousin Penguin.
The Panda penalty is all about onsite factors that violate Google Webmaster Guidelines. This penalty focuses on websites with little content as well as the lack of a focused topic. Google’s goal is to remove spam sites or link farms from showing up in search results. As a result, marketers put more focus on quality content marketing in their SEO strategy. I outsourced the article writing to a professional writer, so the content was of high quality. Also, the majority of manual penalties come from sites with poor, spammy content. So, I eliminated the Panda penalty as the cause of the rankings falling.
So, it had to be a Penguin penalty that was from Google’s algorithm filter. This meant something I did in the link building process caused a warning by Google. To pinpoint the issue, I performed a Health check on the inbound links to the site. From my experience, there are five reasons why a website gets a penalty based on its inbound links. For each possible cause, there are five health checks to diagnose your inbound links.
Before I go through the health check, I gathered all the backlinks to the website. I accomplished this by downloading the links from my Google Search Console. Also, I used the Ahrefs tool to download all the links they found to the site as well. I put all the links together in an excel sheet and de-duped the list. Now I was ready to start the health check diagnosis.
Backlinks Index Check
The first test is finding out if any backlinks have been de-indexed by Google. The power of passing link juice from a backlink to a site can help you when they are healthy but crippling if they are not. We want to make sure we didn’t lose any link juice that could have weakened our site. To find out if they are still indexed, I copied and pasted the backlinks into the Scrapebox tool. I clicked on the button Check Indexed as the software checks each link. The results were all the links indexed and still in good standing with Google. So, it wasn’t the loss of link juice that caused the rankings to tumble.
Link Authority Distribution Check
The second step was to check the links and their root domains to see if they vary in Authority or Page Rank (PR). You need a healthy balance of high PR links, medium PR links, and low PR links. The key is to have a natural looking backlink profile. To have more of one or the other may signal a red flag to the Google filters. You don’t want to have links from sites that have a Page Rank of 5, 6 and seven without some 0’s, 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s added to the mix.
Using Scrapebox, I trimmed the links to their root domain. Then I clicked on “Check Page Rank” to get the results of the Page Rank for each domain. I discovered a mix of high, medium and low PR numbers in the site’s backlink profile. That means I had a good variety of authority links targeting the site that would not cause a penalty.
Link Diversity Check
The third step in the health check process was to determine if I had a wide enough variety of links targeting my site. This means did I have more than one or two forms of links going to the site. There are many types of links you can build to your site such as blog posts, directory listings, social bookmarks, press release links, etc. You need a nice variety of these types of links to have a healthy backlink profile. An imbalance can flag the Google filter and thus, damage your rankings.
To check the diversity of my backlinks, I evaluated each one and labeled them by their type of link. I had a good distribution of link types, so that didn’t cause the rankings to drop.
Link Building Velocity Check
The fourth step was to see if way too many links were built in a short period. I knew this wouldn’t be an issue as I controlled the amount of links made to the site. I had spread out the links in a natural manner. Someone could have intentionally built bad links to my site. This is Negative SEO where a malicious person will build bad links to your website to hurt your rankings. To make sure this wasn’t the case, I audited my backlinks to see if any unusual links showed up on my list. I followed a backlinking schedule while documenting each link built. Analyzing the links, I didn’t find any strange inbound links. So, link building velocity nor Negative SEO was the cause for the dropped rankings.
Still no issues found, and I was getting frustrated!
Anchor Text Check
The final check was to analyze the anchor text from the backlinks. Anchor text is the keyword term or phrase used on one web page that hyperlinks back to a page on your website. Anchor texts break down in three ways: Exact Match Text, which are your top keywords you are ranking for like sporting goods. The second type is Brand Name Text as it’s the name of your business or website URL such as Sports Authority or Sportsauthority.com. The last type is Other Words Text such as click here, visit the site or check this.
Just like Link Diversity, anchor text diversity is vital. The rule of thumb is Exact Match Text should be only 10-20% of your anchors while Brand Name Text should be 55-60%.
To find the anchor text distribution, I placed the website URL into the MajesticSEO tool. Then it gave me the anchor text for each of the backlinks along with the percentage used. The results were eye opening!
My Exact Match anchor was hovering at 60% as opposed to the 20% allowed. This definitely can flag the Penguin filter and cause the rankings to drop. In Google’s eyes, too many Exact Match anchors can lead to a keyword stuffing penalty. So, my hypothesis was the rankings dropped from a keyword stuffing penalty from my anchor texts.
To see if my hypothesis was correct, I went through the backlinks and changed a bunch of exact match anchors. Then, when more links were built, they would be Brand Name such as J2H Digital or Other Words anchors. After just two weeks of anchor changes, the rankings rose back to their pre-penalty level (See Graph Below). I made sure to pattern the anchor text for future links to a 10% Exact Match, 30% Other Words and 60% Brand Name Text.
In conclusion, there’s no need to panic if your site is hit with a Google Penalty. Make sure you are creating great content while building healthy backlinks to your website. Also, document any changes you make to the site along with all the links that you build. Then, if a penalty occurs, you can go to your site and backlinks, isolate the problem and then quickly fix the issue.